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Refugee Docents Help Bring A Museum's Global Collection To Life

Feb 17, 2020
Originally published on February 17, 2020 6:28 pm

The museum faced a docent dilemma.

When Ellen Owens, director of learning and public engagement at the Penn Museum, looked at her pool of docents, she saw a wonderful — and aging — group of largely white people. Docents explain exhibits to visitors and show them around the galleries. Owens thought that having docents from a range of ages and backgrounds might be a good way to connect with more diverse communities who might not otherwise be drawn to the Penn Museum.

With her colleague Kevin Schott, Owens hit upon an idea. Their institution is world-renowned for its priceless artifacts from the Middle East, Africa and Central America. So, why not hire refugees and immigrants from those parts of the world to work as docents?

"We really wanted to have the narratives of lots of different people, to bring the authentic voices of people that live in other places into the galleries of the museum," Owens explains.

The Penn Museum is famous for its priceless artifacts from the Middle East, Africa and Central America.
Cameron Pollack for NPR

The Global Guides, as they're called, were recruited with the help of Philadelphia non-profit organizations aiding immigrants and refugees. The guides received traditional training in archaeology and ancient history. Plus, the museum hired professional storytellers to help the Global Guides lace in personal tales about their lives.

On a recent winter morning, Moumena Saradar, a 43-year-old refugee from Syria, met a visitor wearing a dark green hijab and a radiant smile that warmed up the museum's chilly marble halls. She proudly escorted her guest through a collection that includes thousands of ancient Sumerian clay tablets, coins and sculptures. "The oldest artifacts here are 7,000 years old," Saradar explained.

Saradar immigrated to Philadelphia three and a half years ago with her husband and five kids. Back in Damascus, she worked as a lab technician in a hospital. Now, she connects her history with a cache of fabulous gold jewelry excavated from the tomb of a powerful Mesopotamian queen.

"I love Queen Puabi because she reminds me of my wedding day and wedding customs and traditions," Saradar says. "On my wedding day — guess what — I got approximately two pounds of real gold. So I got that amazing feeling, like — I'm a queen!"

Attendance at the Penn Museum has shot up since the Global Guides' first tours in 2018. A third of its visitors today attend specifically to take a tour with a Global Guide, according to the institution's internal research, and the program has attracted attention throughout the museum world. Nearly a dozen other museums have asked about developing similar programs, and there's already one in place at the Pitt Rivers Museum at the University of Oxford in England.

Left: A mixed media sculpture entitled "Presence of a Fundamental Absence" is seen in the Africa Gallery. Right: A relief of an apkallu, a winged genie, is seen in the Middle East gallery.
Cameron Pollack for NPR

Julian Siggers, director of the Penn Museum, says it's especially meaningful to have docents from Iraq and Syria, given that his institution owes its entire existence to artifacts legally excavated from there in the 1800s.

"This is a part of the world where not only do you see the first cities, but you see the first writing, the first irrigation, the first astronomy," he says. "I mean, we all have this enormous debt to these cultures of the ancient Near East. And of course that's where [the docents] are from and they're very proud of that."

The Global Guides also come from Mexico, Guatemala and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Clay Katongo arrived in North America 13 years ago after fleeing the DRC. He's a new Global Guide, whose tours concentrate on the spectacular Africa collection, replete with religious artifacts preceding the spread of Christianity and Islam.

Clay Katongo, left, was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and is a guide for the Penn Museum's Africa Galleries. Celeste Diaz, who traveled back and forth with her family between Guatemala and Texas, works in the Mexico and Central America Gallery.
Cameron Pollack for NPR

"I love this place," Katongo says. "This is my culture. This is my story." Katongo sees himself as part of a long lineage of spiritual leaders from central Africa. His primary job is as a pastor in a West Philadelphia evangelical church. It provides day care for immigrant workers. He's deeply involved in supporting his community, and the Penn Museum supports him, says Ellen Owens.

"One of the big goals of this project was actually to provide jobs for people that are immigrants and refugees," she says. The part-time guides are paid about $20 an hour and the grant that funds them builds in help to negotiate economic and cultural barriers.

"Like how to get sick time, HR procedures, W-2 forms, how to ask for a day off," says Kevin Schott, associate director of interpretative programs. "I think we often forget all the dumb things we know about having a job in America."

Ellen Owens (left), director of learning programs and Kevin Schott, associate director of interpretive programs, applied for the grant that funded the Global Guides program, which began in 2017.
Cameron Pollack for NPR

But the upside for the museum is huge, Schott adds. The Global Guides have turned out to be invaluable when it comes to translating documents in Arabic, Spanish and other languages. They've helped curators on the ground doing research in Iraq. And at a moment when the tragedies of other countries can feel as remote as an artifact locked away in a glass case, hearing refugees' stories in tandem with artifacts from the past makes both feel more personal and present.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

How do you make ancient artifacts feel relevant in 2020? One prestigious archaeology museum looked at its objects from the Middle East, Africa and Central America and decided to hire refugees from those parts of the world to work as docents. Immigrants from places such as Iraq and Guatemala take visitors through the museum and connect relics from the distant past to the present. NPR's Neda Ulaby was one of those visitors.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: My docent at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology shows up for our tour wearing a dark green hijab and a radiant smile that warms up the museum's chilly marble halls.

MOUMENA SARADAR: Thank you so much for coming. My name is Moumena Saradar. I'm from Syria.

ULABY: Saradar immigrated 3 1/2 years ago with her husband and five kids. Back in Damascus, she worked as a lab tech in a hospital. Now she guides visitors through a collection of Sumerian coins and clay tablets that are almost unimaginably ancient.

SARADAR: The oldest artifact here are 7,000 years old.

ULABY: In some ways, these docents are extremely traditional, says Kevin Schott. He helps run interpretive programs at the museum.

KEVIN SCHOTT: They get all the regular tour guide trainings. They can tell you all about the ancient history of these artifacts, the archaeological background of them and things like that.

ULABY: But these guides also work with professional storytellers to bridge their lives with the artifacts on display, like the fabulous jewelry excavated from the tomb of a powerful Sumerian queen.

SARADAR: I love Queen Puabi because she reminds me with my wedding day and wedding customs and traditions.

ULABY: Moumena Saradar says Queen Puabi's golden rings and bracelets are not unlike what many Middle Eastern brides wear today.

SARADAR: On my wedding day - guess what (laughter) - I got approximately about two pounds of real gold. So I got that amazing feeling, like - I'm a queen (laughter).

ULABY: Nearly a dozen other museums have asked about developing similar programs using refugees as docents. And there's already one in place at Oxford University's anthropology museum in England. The director of the Penn Museum, Julian Siggers, says his institution owes its existence to artifacts legally excavated in Iraq in the 1800s.

JULIAN SIGGERS: I mean, this is the part of the world where not only do you see the first cities but you see the first writing, the first irrigation, the first astronomy.

ULABY: How meaningful, he says, to have docents from Syria and Iraq.

SIGGERS: We all have this enormous debt to these cultures of the ancient Near East. And of course, this is where they're from, and they're very, very proud of that.

ULABY: The Penn Museum's seven Global Guides, as they're called, also come from Mexico, Guatemala and the Democratic Republic of Congo. That's where Clay Katongo's from. He just started working as a docent.

CLAY KATONGO: I love this place.

ULABY: Katongo's taking a group of visitors through the museum's collection of African religious artifacts. He tells them about his main job as a pastor in a West Philadelphia church.

KATONGO: We have, in our church, a day care because that area is mostly immigrants. So this way, they can make money and leave not depending on other people and contribute to the advancement of this country.

ELLEN OWENS: One of the big goals of this project was actually to provide jobs for people that are immigrants and refugees.

ULABY: Ellen Owens, the Penn Museum's director of learning and public engagement, dreamt up this program with her colleague Kevin Schott. They got a grant in 2017 to kick it off and found their guides through local nonprofits that aid refugees. Schott says the guides work part time, get paid about $20 an hour and the museum staff helps them adjust to their jobs.

SCHOTT: I think we often forget all the dumb things we know about having a job in America, like how to get sick time, HR procedures, W-2 forms - so like, a lot to learn about getting a job. And so one of the things we put in the original grant was to give time to actually train them for some job readiness.

ULABY: But Schott says the real winner is the museum. The Global Guides have turned out to be invaluable in translating documents in Arabic and other languages. They've helped curators doing research in Iraq. And a third of visitors now tell the museum they came specifically to tour with a Global Guide.

KATONGO: This is my culture. This is my story.

ULABY: Clay Katongo says the tragedies of other countries can sometimes feel as remote as an artifact locked away in a glass case.

KATONGO: You need, sometimes, to hear the story of someone.

ULABY: Stories bridging people, countries and precious items from a past that suddenly feels like something we share.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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